Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nostalgia IV

Youth music is always going to be about being young and in love and in lust. This can lead to some great music, but some pretty banal stuff too. After all, being in love is one of the most self-absorbed and inner looking states there is. And teenagers are already pretty self-absorbed to begin with. So you can get some pretty treacle-y and annoying stuff, like all those old fifties songs about your earth angel who met some early and tragic fate and for whom you will pine away forever. In my day, we had a sense of humor about some of this. Weird Al Yankovic sang about losing his girl and “being stranded all alone in the gas station of love, where I have to use the self service pumps.” He also opined about a lost love that he would “rather dive into a swimming pool filled with double-edged razor blades than spend another minute with you.”

And then there is lust. Meatloaf captured it with humor and pinpoint accuracy in “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights,” and Aerosmith talked with tongue firmly in cheek about it in “Big Ten Inch Record.” By comparison, two of the more popular songs about young love and lust today, by Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift, are entitled “Shake it Off” and “Grenade.” Swift apparently had a bad boyfriend, and she tells us she is going to “shake it off” approximately 47 times (I lost count). She uses another five or six words that rhyme with off to round out the lyrics and call it a song. Bruno Mars, in “Grenade,” tells his girl, thrillingly and with such poetry, that he would “catch a grenade for you, step in front of a train for you”, and then finds a number of words that rhyme with grenade and also calls it a day. Beyonce, another huge star, tells us she is crazy in love in one song (“Crazy in Love,” of course), and then switches things up for another in which she announces she is drunk in love (you guessed it, “Drunk in Love”): “I’ve been drinking, I’ve been thinking, I get filthy when that liquor get into me.” Kind of what you would have if the Beatles weren’t kidding when they sang “why don’t we do it in the road.”

Compare these with songs like The Eagles’ “Desperado.” Or Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” which were real love songs written with genuine thought and feeling, so real to me as a teen that for a time they became a kind of standard I compared the adolescent girls around me to. And finally, my all time favorite love song, Bruce Springsteen’s “For You”—

Princess cards she sends me
with her regards
barroom eyes shine vacancy
to see her you gotta look hard
wounded deep in battle
I stand stuffed like some soldier undaunted
to her Cheshire smile, I’ll stand on file
she’s all I ever wanted

This is both a ballad and an epic. I am not really sure what it all means, but we’ve all been wounded deep in the battle of love, and imagined there was someone for whom we would give up everything, someone who truly is all we ever wanted. Springsteen does not allow himself to be restrained by simple rhythms and rhymes, with simple sentiments that cloy. Here is a little more of the same song (and then I will stop):

Crawl into my ambulance
your pulse is getting weak
Reveal yourself all now to me, girl
while you've got the strength to speak
'Cause they're waiting for you at Bellevue
with their oxygen masks
But I could give it all to you now
if only you could ask.

Here is the urgency, the tragedy, of young love. Not the silly, not the trite, and not the merely horny—The Boss manages to do the same kind of thing Shakespeare does with young love in “Romeo and Juliet.” He treats young love with a kind of seriousness that is missing in the glib and cynical stuff that is foisted on us today.

And there are no epics songs today, no anthems, none that express the angst and alienation of being a youth (or even an adult) in a society you feel is full of shit. Where is Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues?” Or Don McLean’s “American Pie?” Springsteen, again, in “Jungleland”, tells us that in his desperate Jersey neighborhood,

The street’s on fire in a real death waltz
between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy
and the poets out here don’t write nothing at all
they just stand back and let it all be….

Now tell me that is not great stuff, or that there is anything equivalent to that in today’s music. And where do you have anything like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” where they boldly announce “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control.” It is as if their music really did come from a counter culture, really spoke for it, and even if it was just some music mogul selling it to us, even if it was “the man” that was selling it to us, he wasn’t selling us crap. I would like to think we would have refused to buy the crap that they put out today.

And what of books in the new millennium, in the second decade of that new millennium? (God, I am getting old). Books are dominated by pap, by sticky feel good syrupy concoctions (“The Five People You Meet in Heaven”) or the same old teenage vampire, werewolf, the sky is falling, the apocalypse is coming, or is already here, type stuff. Last year, Veronica Roth had “Divergent,” “Allegiant”, and “Insurgent” all in the top ten for books sold. Give me a break. They find one thing that works and flog it to death while we all wish that they would come up with something a little more creative and genuine, not so mass-manufactured and trite. And of course the irony is that we are fascinated by the apocalypse in books, but are ignoring it as it actually approaches, as the climate goes haywire and food and water become more scarce and the world more dangerously populated.

In my youth, we had authors that actually had something to say about what it was like to be human, to be an American, to be a man or woman, and who did it with style. Kurt Vonnegut was in the top ten in 73 and 76, and you had others like John Irving, Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, and John Updike in the top ten at various times in the 70s. These were serious authors, and even a genre writer like Stephen King wrote interesting and fairly three-dimensional characters. Now we have teen dystopia (and when was the world of teens ever anything but dystopic?) and Dan Brown, whose admittedly great plots are populated by characters that might be given numbers or letters, so cardboard, generic and unmemorable are they. They are there solely to be moved around a game board by an all-powerful plot, and plotter. If a great author creates characters that become so real they threaten to challenge their author and do what they damn well please, then Brown’s are a submissive and servile bunch of wimps.

OK, so there you have it. The current music manages to be about nothing but desire, and desire in and of itself offers no vision, inspires no poetry. There is no object for that desire, no romance, no vision of a better world, and so it comes off as little more than a kind of techno-musical masturbation. There is no rebellion in it, nothing of the pain of being young, of being in a world you never chose and knowing it is the only one that is ever going to be on offer. The industry panders to a willing audience that doesn’t bother to ask for anything more.

The book industry churns out retreaded and thoughtless crap, or comic books, to teens, who don’t get tired of the same old, same old apocalyptic, supernatural and pulp visions. There is little or nothing for the intelligent adult here, I don’t think, or the teen who wants to be one, nothing that comments intelligently on the human condition. Certainly no “Catcher in the Rye,” no “A Separate Peace,” and no “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Next week, I end my rant by summing up what else bothers me about present day American Culture, and why I think we did it all better when I was young.

© 2015 Mike Welch

1 comment:

  1. Youth music is also, and sometimes mainly, about baffling and annoying one's elders. Why else would we sing stuff like, "Tutti Fruity, Aw rootie?" (Mairsie Doats was before my time.)
    …Wait. The Beatles were kidding?